DuPage County government has awarded engineering contracts totaling more than a half-million dollars to a firm that employs the wife of a top county official, who formally recommended the company for some of the lucrative work, the Better Government Association has learned.

County officials maintain the St. Charles-based firm, Wills Burke Kelsey Associates Ltd., is well qualified, and its contracts went through several layers of review before final approval.

But the connection between Anthony Charlton, director of the county’s Stormwater Management division, and Wills Burke Kelsey, may raise a few eyebrows. Since Charlton’s wife JoEllen joined Wills Burke Kelsey as a consultant when the firm was created, Charlton’s department has recommended the firm for three stormwater-related projects totaling $534,209, according to county records reviewed by the BGA.

Two county board commissions and even the DuPage County Board had to approve the contracts – but a department recommendation is a key step in the hiring process.

Charlton denies any wrongdoing and maintains he didn’t steer business to the firm.

If Wills Burke Kelsey bids on a stormwater-related contract, Charlton says he and the county have agreed it’s best for him to recuse himself from the selection.

The task of picking a firm from a pool of bidders is then either delegated to a staff member or an engineering consultant from outside the county, depending on the size of the contract, he says.

“We take steps to avoid any potential conflict,” says Charlton, who earns an annual salary of $159,697. “We’re about as straightforward in this group as you can get.”

But a search of public records shows Charlton may not have adhered to the county’s established safeguards.

He has recommended that the firm employing his wife be approved for two contracts, including one earlier this year for $325,439 for engineering services for a reservoir in Carol Stream’s Armstrong Park, county records show.

The DuPage County Board ultimately approved both deals.

“That’s not the way we do business in DuPage,” County Board Chairman Dan Cronin says. “That’s troubling if that’s his name on a document and that document was generated on my watch.”

In DuPage County, a department such as Stormwater Management will determine a need for a project and draft a publicly distributed request for proposals. The department then selects one of the responding firms and recommends it for board approval.

Charlton says his signature on the documents was a formality and maintains he played no role in selecting Wills Burke Kelsey for any job. He also noted that his wife’s firm has sought work from DuPage County that it didn’t win.

In addition to the Armstrong Park job, the firm won a contract for $99,300 in March 2010 for services relating to a West Branch DuPage River restoration project; Charlton didn’t sign a form recommending its approval.

But he did vouch for the firm in March 2009, recommending its approval for a $79,984 engineering contract aimed at resolving flooding issues; the amount was increased to $109,470 in October 2010, county records indicate. Charlton also signed a document recommending the increase, according to county records obtained by the BGA.

The merger of west suburban engineering firms Christopher B. Burke Engineering West Ltd. and Robert H. Anderson & Associates Inc. led to the creation of Wills Burke Kelsey in 2009, according to state records, and the firm’s president John Wills.

JoEllen Charlton, a village planner whose clients include the suburbs of Forest Park and Willowbrook, had worked at St. Charles-based Robert H. Anderson, and joined the new firm as a consultant at the time of the merger. She hasn’t worked on her firm’s DuPage stormwater-related projects, she says.

Robert H. Anderson didn’t work with the stormwater division, though Christopher B. Burke Engineering West and its affiliate, Christopher B. Burke Engineering Ltd., were awarded at least 10 new contracts totaling nearly $2.4 million, according to a search of the Stormwater Commission meeting minutes dating back to 2005. (A 2011 contract extension for the Burke firm was recommended by Anthony Charlton, records show.)

Burke did not return messages. He is founder and president of his namesake firm based in Rosemont and a minority partner in Wills Burke Kelsey, Wills says.

The material in this article originated with an anonymous tip through the BGA/WLS-AM hotline.

This article was written and reported by BGA investigator Andrew Schroedter. He can be reached at aschroedter@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9035.

Homepage image, without DuPage seal, courtesy CTD_2005/Flickr.